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Rad Research


Researchers have known for years that cosmic rays penetrate airplanes, dosing pilots, flight attendants and frequent fliers with potentially significant doses of ionizing radiation.


At Rads on a Plane, we are doing something NEW.


For the first time, we are making measurements that track how aviation radiation is changing--changing with time, changing with the solar cycle, changing with the natural evolution of Earth's magnetic field. 


We measure cosmic radiation in two ways:

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Spaceweather ballooning:

Through the STEM-based, highly active Earth to Sky Calculus ballooning program, we have been taking cosmic radiation measurements since 2011. We have flown over 250 payloads from four continents into the stratosphere​, each one equipped with radiation sensors.

Aviation Radiation measurements:

Our students and staff regularly carry radiation sensors onboard commercial airlines, monitoring dose rates with frequent flights across the USA and other countries. We have data

 Our measurements are fresh and constantly updating. No other radiation research program has a comparable range of latitude, longitude and time resolution.


Research Team

Dr. Tony Phillips is the lead scientist for Rads on a Plane. He is a professional astronomer and science writer, best known for his authorship of Tony has a PhD from  Cornell  University and worked for many years after that as a radio astronomer at Caltech University. He has published more than 100 refereed articles in research journals such as Nature, the Astrophysical Journal, and the Journal of Geophysical Research. Research interests include planetary and neutron star magnetospheres, radio storms on Jupiter, and cosmic rays.  


Recent work related to Rads on a Plane includes the following:

  • In 2015, he led a series of high-altitude balloon launches in support of NASA's RAD-X (Radiation Dosimetry Experiment) mission to explore radiation hazards to air travelers.

  • In 2016, he was named to the working group for NASA's Living With a Star Institute on Aviation Radiation (a.k.a. "SAFESKY").

  • In 2016, Tony delivered the keynote address at NOAA Space Weather Workshop: "Using Microbes as Biological  Radiation Sensors.”


Tony is a co-author of the following referred papers on aviation radiation:

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Hervey Allen is the lead programmer for Rads on a Plane. He is a computer scientist from the University or Oregon, and over the past 10 years, he has flown close to 2,000,000 miles and absorbed cosmic radiation doses equal to many thoracic chest X-rays, which gives him a special interest in keeping track of Rads on a Plane.

Hervey's programming for Rads on a Plane includes:

  • Developing techniques for collecting GPS-tagged measurements of secondary cosmic rays inside airplanes.

  • Creating code to predict dose rates on flights anywhere in the world.

  • Developing a proprietary optimization of NOAA's World Magnetic Model to computes components of Earth's magnetic field so rapidly, our customers will be able to receive realtime radiation alerts while they're still in the air. 

Hervey is also a frequent blogger and a frequent contributor to The Rad Savvy Traveler blog, where he shares stories about data gathering as a frequent flyer for science.

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​Anna Herbst is a data analyst for Rads on a Plane and a founding member of the student research group Earth to Sky Calculus. In 2011 she and her classmates began launching helium balloons to the stratosphere on a regular basis. They soon discovered that they could measure cosmic rays in the atmosphere and, moreover, that those radiation levels were increasing with time.


Data analysis for Rads on a Plane:

  • Helped develop methods to analyze cosmic ray data gathered by balloons, and later adapted those methods to data gathered on airplanes.

  • Single-handedly added more than 10,000 gps-tagged radiation points to our master database of aviation measurements.

  • Runs our E-RAD model, comparing the results to actual flight data for quality assurance of our predictions.


Today, as a junior at the University of Oregon, Anna is our lead data analyst. She crunches the numbers from every single balloon launch and airplane flight we conduct in support of Rads on a Plane.

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​Katharine Allen is webmaster for Rads On A Plane and is a professional interpreter with a background in marketing and communications. Although not a professional scientist, she regularly takes cosmic ray data on airplanes, and she has contributed thousands of GPS-tagged radiation measurements to our growing database.

Rads on a Plane activities:

  • Providing interpreting and communication-based services when our team travels around the world gathering radiation data

  • Managing social media marketing and communications

  • Providing mentorship and support to Earth to Sky Calcluus projects



At Rads on a Plane, our mission is to monitor the aviation radiation environment around the world, finding out where it is better, and where it is worse, and giving you the tools you need to manage your own exposure.

How do we do this? For the past 4 years, in collaboration with the students of Earth to Sky Calculus, we have been launching radiation sensors to the stratosphere as well as putting them onboard airplanes to map the distribution of cosmic rays around our planet. The sensors we use are neutron bubble chambers and X-ray/gamma-ray Geiger tubes sensitive to energies between 10 keV and 20 MeV. We measure neutrons, X-rays and gamma-rays, which are produced by the crash of primary cosmic rays into Earth's atmosphere. 


Using this data, we have developed a new predictive model of aviation radiation. It's called E-RAD. The "E" stands for empirical. We have collected more than 18,000 gps-tagged radiation measurements spanning 5 continents and 43,000 feet of altitude. The we can predict the dosage on any flight over the USA with an error of no more than 15%. Click here to learn more about the E-RAD Radiation Model.

To measure radiation on airplanes, These energies span the range of medical X-ray machines and airport security scanners.


Furthermore, the energy range of the sensors, 10 keV to 20 MeV, is similar to that of medical X-ray machines and airport security scanners. Because we are measuring secondary cosmic rays, our results are the tip of the iceberg. For every secondary cosmic ray entering your plane, there are other even higher-energy primary cosmic rays getting onboard, too.

Every day we monitor approximately 1400 flights criss-crossing the 10 busiest routes in the continental USA. Typically, this includes more than 80,000 passengers per day. E-RAD calculates the radiation exposure for every single flight.


See our Hot Flights Table for a daily summary of these calculations. 

E-RAD can predict the radiation exposure of passengers onboard any flight in areas of the Earth where we have taken our sensors.

The E-RAD Radiation Model For Airline Travelers

E-Rad Model


Spaceweather Ballooning

Earth to Sky Calculus is group of youths doing cutting-edge science in a little-explored realm 100,000 feet above our heads: the stratosphere. About once a week, they send their experiments aloft using helium balloons to search for new life forms in the stratosphere and to monitor the effects of cosmic radiation on Earth’s atmosphere. These balloons are equipped with radiation sensors that detect cosmic rays, a surprisingly "down to Earth" form of space weather. The radiation data collected on these flights make up an important part of the data used in the Rads on a Plane program. Their efforts are 100% crowdfunded and posted regularly on the Earth to Sky Facebook feed.

Our research is 100% crowdfunded through fundraising for our spaceweather ballooning program, Earth to Sky Calculus.


Support Rads on a Plane by sponsoring a flight, sending up your own experiment, or buying a one-of-a-kind gift flown to the stratosphere.  

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